Today is International Kindness Day, which I didn’t want to go unnoticed. Although Gratitude and Kindness are siblings or first cousins, perhaps, I thought I’d share a “talk” that I prepared for my seminary studies a few years ago…I wanted to share these words. The only person who has read these ideas is my dear Dean Joseph Hambor.
The Blessings of Shared Gratitude
Last week, I met with a couple that I would be marrying in the not-so-distant future. Although we’d been introduced through mutual friends at a social function last year, I had little knowledge of their backgrounds and personal stories. Through our conversation, I learned that one of the grooms had played varsity tennis in college. So naturally, I asked where he attended school. With a sheepish glance, he confessed that he’d graduated from Cornell, the distinguished Ivy League University.
We talked a bit about his college days, and I posed the question, “Who was your favorite teacher at Cornell?” Having been acquainted with quite a few Cornell Professors over the years, I secretly hoped he might mention a name that was familiar to me. Tom’s eyes sparkled as he proceeded to tell me about Professor Garrett, with whom he took a rigorous two-semester history class. Tom said, “I went into the class with an “A” average and a lot of self-confidence. But, when he returned my first writing assignment, I was crushed—and angry—to see that he’d given me a “D.” I’d never made a “D” on anything! The paper was littered with corrections and edits in bold red ink. And, at the top of the paper he wrote ‘try harder.’” Perhaps Professor Garrett knew that Tom be able to accept such harsh criticism, using the setback to strengthen his critical thinking and writing skills. It was, as they say, a “teachable moment.”
After his disappointment and irritation subsided, Tom got down to the difficult business of becoming a better writer, with Professor Garrett’s help. In our conversation, Tom went on to detail the academic progress he’d made over that year and proudly noted that he finished with the top grade in the class adding, “I always appreciated how much I learned from Garrett. I’m a strong writer now largely because of his teaching…..In fact, these days, my young work colleagues often seek out my help in their writing assignments.” Even though Tom was well into middle age, it was clear that his time with Garrett made a profound impact on him—one that followed him well beyond his days in Ithaca.
Having worked with many students over the years, I was prompted to follow-up with Tom, “Did you ever contact Garrett, after you graduated, to let him know how much he helped you?” After all, I knew how much it meant to me when students would take the time to express their appreciation for my dedication to teaching. Tom’s eyes cast down, and he shook his head. “You know, I always meant to do that, but I never did. I recently found out that Professor Garrett has Alzheimer’s. He’s not accepting any visitors, and he probably wouldn’t understand a letter, if I wrote one, or remember me should I visit.”
Why Say Thanks?
We can all identify with Tom’s seemingly lost opportunity to say “Thank You.” Whether it is an unexpected kind gesture of a stranger at the market or a life changing act of a loved one, the tender “Thanks” that we owe too often goes unspoken. I have a theory that many of us believe that if we think Thank You internally, that is cosmically sufficient.
Intentional expressions of appreciation may seem awkward, challenging, or just unnecessary. Perhaps we feel as though we simply can’t be bothered with another commitment—our to-do lists are bulging at the seams. Our mind conjures up thoughts like, “She already knows how I feel about her.” Or maybe we hear a voice that says, “I’d do the same thing for him,” ringing in our ears. For those reared with stern parental requirements about “saying thank you and please” (or even mandatory thank you notes for birthday and holiday gifts), the idea of reaching out to make known our appreciation for a generous act or gesture, large or small, smacks of being an “Emily Post” throwback. Yet, I beg to differ. To the contrary: an expressed thanks is a most potent spiritual tool we have at our disposal.
I invite you to consider a radically different approach to saying thank you—re-conceptualizing it to be an act of love and service, rather than a social obligation or onerous task obligation. I’m not talking about an Oprah-style gratitude list, jotted down on the back of an envelope and stuffed in one’s bag. Rather, I’m describing a mindful connection with another human being—a tangible means to spread the love of the Divine and to enjoy connection with another person—available to all, anytime and anyplace. It is, quite simply, a Holy Trinity of Goodness, Kindness, and Love, joining us to others and all to God. I challenge you to try it and watch what happens.
Gratitude as a Spiritual Principle
Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” Indeed, articulated gratitude forms an important building block in many religions. In Western monotheistic traditions, gratitude envelopes all of life; for, it is from God from whom all blessings flow. In Eastern religions, gratitude is a path to achieve purity because as one feels grateful, one gives up the idea that he or she owns anything or exists as an individual entity. Gratitude is infused in rituals and practices and worship. “The virtue of thankfulness is so basic that Jewish teaching regards it as a duty even after the Messiah comes and all other obligations are suspended: The rabbis taught, in the world to come, the Messiah will abolish all the sacrifices of the Torah, but not the thanksgiving sacrifice.” The Buddha says that it is gratitude that forms the bond holding humanity together, “The unworthy man is ungrateful and forgetful of benefits done for him. This ingratitude, this forgetfulness is congenial to mean people. But the worthy person is grateful and mindful of benefits done to him. This gratitude, this mindfulness, is congenial to the best people.” Yoruba teachings add, “One upon whom we bestow kindness but will not express gratitude is worse than a robber who carries away our belongings.”
Even if one finds himself or herself outside a faith tradition—as a secular humanist or simply a “seeker”—the practice of gratitude and thanks-giving is widely embraced as an effective practice for personal fulfillment by psychologists and philosophers.
Gratitude from a Psychological Perspective
Beyond the spiritual injunctions to be grateful, numerous scientific disciplines tells us that gratitude and thankfulness are effective tools in enhancing one’s life. From a psychological perspective, social scientists show that practicing gratitude and saying thanks helps us to feel better. Robert Emmons and M.E. McCullough demonstrated this elegant principle. In controlled studies they assigned participants into groups, one focusing on consistent chronicling of one’s gratitude, while the other group recorded life’s “hassles.” The assignment was weekly reflection and listing for three weeks. At the end of that period, participants evaluated their individual sense of well-being. Specifically the gratitude folks indicated greater feelings of joy and happiness. There were more upbeat in appraising their lives and were optimistic about the future than their colleagues who dwelled on what was not going well.
Those focusing on gratitude and acts of kindness also enjoyed enhanced physical health. These practices are connected with a number of desirable physical effects relating to heart rate and blood pressure. The grateful and thankful people were less likely to succumb to bouts of unwell-ness and required less medical intervention.
Watch What Happens
So, if various spiritual perspectives call us to practice gratitude and the less lofty fields of the social sciences and medicine call us to do the same, what are the practical ways to pump the prime of this perspective? After all, in modern life, many of us are routinely overwhelmed and stuck. Here are some things that I have learned along the way.
One of my simple pleasures in life is perusing remainder and sale book catalogs. For a very modest price, I can buy books of every possible variety. As I pore through the pages, I come across scores of books that I’ve never heard of but feel called to add to my library. Last year, I ordered a copy of John Kralik’s 365 Thanks Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Gratitude Changed my Life. Although part of an ever expanding genre of “my year of doing this or that” (“My Year without a Carbon Footprint” or “My Year Without Make Up”), this book not only gets to the heart of a foundational spiritual principle, but it is a path that we all can walk, some days or every day.
Kralik’s book begins with the author in a pretty rotten emotional place: a divorcee, his relationships with his children were tenuous. His fledgling law practice was on the wane. He was depressed and life was dark. The greyness and depression that he expressed is likely familiar territory for many of us. A girlfriend, with whom he had recently broken up, gave him—of all things—lovely stationery for Christmas. Perhaps led by God, he resolved to focus on the blessings he’d been given by writing a thank you note every day. The exercise started slowly, as he wasn’t feeling very thankful—writing to a client thanking him for his confidence in his legal skills or a merchant who’d served him well … but he picked up a head of steam. And as the days passed, one after the next, not only had his perspective shifted, but his thank you notes seemed to set off a cosmic catalytic reaction of good. Relationships were being repaired, gifts offered, and opportunities arrived. I don’t want to suggest that his letters acted as Godly coupons, predictably leading to things for which he yearned, but rather the act of saying thank you opened his heart, created space for blessings, and sent positive energy and love to those in his life, whether close relatives or more casual acquaintances. At the end of the year, the sweep of changes in his life—his personal relationships and professional accomplishments—were mind-boggling.
Jumpstarting “Operation Gratitude”
While it is a lofty, noble goal to practice intentional thanks-giving as a daily practice for an entire calendar year, many of us may need to start with a more manageable resolution. I offer a few bits of framework about simple tools of the Art of Saying Thank You. The tools you bring to the exercise are of your own choosing: social media, email, text, phone call, or written word.
As I think about how we can be better gifters of the Thank You, I should say that my hunch is that many are already out of the gates, without recognizing it. Speaking for myself, there are many times each day, that I have a passing thought about a word, deed, or act of service that impresses me or makes my life better, easier, or richer. The internal prompting to say “thanks” rolls around my head, but it doesn’t see the light of day by verbal or written expression. Our newfound awareness is about taking the next step….wrapping the heart and mind around the recognition of a blessing and sharing that sentiment with the other person and the Divine.
If we set about a reflective thank you each day, we might focus on a straight-forward, yet sincere, word of appreciation for an ordinary “transaction” of life. Rather than simply offering up a perfunctory “thanks very much,” what if we spent just a couple of minutes infusing the word of gratitude with intention, clarity, and specificity, infusing the gesture with considerably more gravity, context and purpose? Consider am example that is familiar to many: a thank you expressed for a dinner invitation. These days most of us appreciate a quick email or text after preparing a meal for a guest or treating someone at a restaurant. But, how about taking a page from yester year and sending a real note—through postal mail! And to this, add carefully chosen words: “I so appreciated your taking time to prepare our meal and host us in your home. You offered not only the gift of your home and culinary talents, but you presented me with your most valuable resource, your time. I’ve been under a lot of pressure at work, lately. I so appreciated the care and love you showed in bringing us together. Our conversations reminded me of how much I miss your company. I can easily get caught up in my never ending lists of tasks, but tending to our friendship should be right at the top.” Writing such heartfelt words might feel awkward to some, but once the pump is primed, they will flow ever-more freely in the future.
Sometimes it’s fun to throw seeds of thanks-giving into the world like confetti, to the most unsuspecting of souls. For service well provided, thank not only the service provider, but make this good deed known to the worker’s supervisor. Offering praise and gratitude to “unsung heroes” in our daily lives is fulfilling, too. What about the administrative assistants, building door men (and women!), a dry cleaner or reliable postal worker who deserves sincere praise? I am prompted to thank the two fellows who run the coffee cart in front of my workplace in Midtown Manhattan. As they see me walking toward my building on 49th, they prepare my coffee just as I wish, milk/no sugar. When I’m out of cash, they run a tab for me. Who does that in New York City?
A variation on that theme is what I think of as the “Fan Thank You.” These tend to be shared with people and institutions that are not part of our daily life. These are the folks who inspire, delight, and enrich our lives. A few examples from my own history would include a note to a compelling author for life-changing words; an inspiring volunteer or charity leader who makes the world a finer, more just place; a public servant who “Fights the Good Fight’ despite the obstacles of elected office; or someone who has gone public with a personal struggle. By connecting with that person, one can, with clarity, embrace ideas, lessons, and inspiration. We become the voice of all those thankful people who choose—or are unable—to speak. If your experience is like mine, these offerings of good tidings are richly embraced and returned. When we say to people, “You matter. Your work in the world matters. And, I thank you for what you’ve given to me.” Goodwill travels at the speed of a super conductor super collider.
A case from my own life is illustrative: while in graduate school at Yale, I received a scholarship named for the ultra-wealthy Bass family from Texas. Although the family had nothing to do with my selection for the award (rather the money was part of some large pool of funds that was distributed by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences), the award did matter to my financial security as I studied for my degrees. Somehow, I wanted to express my appreciation. I hate to admit that this was so long ago that the internet was in its infancy, so companies and foundations weren’t represented by websites online. So many years later, I can’t even recall how I obtained an address for the family in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex; but find it, I did. I wrote to Sid Bass, one of the leading members of the family at the time —a simple card telling him a little about myself and offering a sincere expression of thanks for what his family had done for me. He returned a hand-written letter to me with a rather startling admission. He explained that over the years, his family had given many millions of dollars to Yale, his alma mater—a school that many of his family members attended. But, he’d never received a thank you note from a student. He was surprised and pleased. I believe we were both buoyed by the interaction.
For those seeking a higher degree of personal difficulty, reflect on some unfinished business in your life or unspoken words you’ve been “meaning” to say. Perhaps it is a nagging amends that needs to be offered or an unspoken kindness that should be noted. You may be addressing a recent situation or events long since passed. Letter writing may not be your cup of tea, so how about arranging a phone call, video chat, or time out for tea? Ponder your thoughts carefully and in detail. And, prayerfully ask for Divine guidance, the wisdom of the universe as you seek to convey what’s on your heart.
Is there a “Thank You” not said that you feel immediately drawn to address? A frail elder or person going through a health crisis? Perhaps it would be wise to begin there. Most certainly the fragile person will warmly embrace your gesture. And, unlike Tom, you won’t feel that there is unfinished business should they decline or pass. I personally benefitted by the deliberate demonstration of gratitude I made to my elderly aunts who had a hand in raising me. Somewhere during my adolescence, I had the good sense to realize that these women had made unusual sacrifices to help rear my sister and myself and that their days on the earth were quite limited. I am fortunate to have had a satisfying emotional closure.
Thank You’s 101: Tools of the Trade
The time and tools of a life of thanksgiving are simple, I’m convinced—I offer a few examples that can be easily integrated into one’s life. To offer the most basic verbal Thank You to a helpful person requires only the briefest pause. A kind word at the office need be nothing more than a post-left on a computer screen or desk. With electronic address books and contact lists in telephones, anyone can simply drop a note in the mail. Keeping stamps and a few notecards in one’s bag or purse makes it’s easy to act on those internal thoughts of appreciation. Likewise, with the internet, it takes no time to locate the address for nearly any person or organization. It’s easy to send an email to these folks or a note, too. I like to set aside a little “mad money” in my pocketbook for those occasions when I wish to gift something special as a thank-you gift for someone—a cup of coffee, a cupcake, or flowers, for instance. And, I stockpile standard gift items—soaps or general interest books (on sale, of course) that can be gifted on a moment’s notice. All strategies can work for even the busiest schedule.
Closing Thoughts: The Multiplier Effect
In 1969, Edward Norton Lorenz, a mathematician trained at Dartmouth and Harvard University described what he called the “Butterfly Effect.” As a second career, following a stint in the Army Corps of Engineers, he decided to become a meteorologist studying the field at MIT. Not convinced of “linearity” in meteorological phenomena, he wrote a paper that became the basis of so-called chaos theory, which was ultimately applied to disciplines throughout the natural and social sciences. In its simplest form, he argues that a small imperceptible change can ultimately create a profound shift in outcome. In other words it was hypothesized, “A flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil, might set off a tornado in Texas.”
my way of thinking, a tender act of thanksgiving might well spawn an intense
catalytic reaction—one unknown to the man, woman or child who initiates
it. Why not throw the seeds of
appreciation into the universe and see how you feel and see what happens!